A former investment banker and fashion entrepreneur from Senegal has launched an app that connects people of color with therapists from their own cultural background.
According to Fast Company, Eric Coly came up with the idea for Ayana after his friend talked about her struggle to find a Black therapist. Coly's friend was especially in need of finding a therapist who can relate to her experience as a Black woman.
“Take aside the stigmatization and the lack of access to insurance and resources, [minorities] tend to only find people whom they aren’t able to relate to quite well,” Coly told Fast Company. “And they essentially give up. They buy into the notion that there’s no one out there who can help them.”
The entrepreneur focused on building Ayana for the past year, looking to connect marginalized groups such as people of color, LGBTQ communities and disabled individuals to licensed therapists.
"We strive to address the strong lack of engagement between minorities and the mental health care industry which arises as a result of cost, stigma, and lack of cultural competency," the company states on its website. "We achieve this by matching users with licensed professionals that share their unique traits, values, and sensibilities."
Ayana allows virtual therapy, connecting people through text messaging, phone calls or video conferencing. Users can log into the app anonymously, then take a culturally sensitive questionnaire before getting matched with a licensed professional.
Coly said the project also turned out to be a benefit for himself as someone who suffers from depression.
“I suffer from severe depression, and in doing the research, it helped me, in a way, heal, and become more courageous about speaking about it," he told Al Dia News. "It was the formation of my wanting to help out a dire need that I realized existed, and the inclusion of the issues that I had faced for a while that essentially gave me the impetus for starting this company.”
According to the American Psychological Association, 86% of psychologists in the U.S. were white in 2015, while 5% were Asian, another 5% were Hispanic and 4% were Black. The study adds that 32% of psychology doctorates in 2016 were awarded to minorities, while 68% were awarded to whites.
"I strongly believe that if finding a reflection of yourself in your counselor is what you demand to find a safe space, you are entitled to it," Coly states on the company website. "The overriding belief was, and still is, that such providers are extremely rare or simply did not exist. They do. They are just hard to locate, hence seemingly inaccessible. As a result, minorities are often misdiagnosed due to being mismatched, hence the importance of good representation."
Coley said other teletherapy competitors don’t take the time to collect the necessary information and to find the right therapist match for mental health patients.
“The questionnaires tend to not be as progressive — it lacks the ability to tap into your cultural nuances, which is what makes you an individual,” the 45-year-old told Fast Company.
Ayana features 55 licensed counselors working as independent contractors, while 100 other therapists are currently going through the vetting process. Coly said the goal is to have 1,000 counselors by the end of 2020.
Although the packages currently start at $140 a month, Ayana plans to work with community based-organizations to subsidize access, Fast Company reported. The app is expected to launch in Android and Apple devices in January.